In Buzz Bissinger’s classic book about a season with an Odessa, Texas, high school football team, he dubbed them “Friday Night Lights.”
Now, thanks to a pandemic featuring protocols that drastically limit game attendance, it is becoming more like Friday Night Lights, Camera, Action.
High school football returned to the field Saturday, opening a fall sports season the weekend before schools would normally head off to play state basketball tournaments. However, guidelines imposed by the state of Washington limits the number of people allowed into a high school football game to 200 – a total that includes players, coaches, trainers, cheerleaders and game officials.
In other words, no fans in the stands, although a lone bald eagle was spotted circling the field prior to kickoff.
“By the time you get the players and everyone else on the field, there aren’t that many spots left,” West Valley athletics director Jamie Nilles said. “Just how do you do that? Do you do a Willie Wonka kind of thing and just have Golden Tickets? Hopefully, as we go forward, we can begin to open things up a little bit and let some fans and some parents in to watch the games in person.”
The human Eagles cruised past Rogers 55-6 in their home opener Saturday afternoon at West Valley as Malachi Clark rushed for 252 yards and three touchdowns. It was the kind of win that energizes the fan base and produces a party atmosphere in the stands.
On this day, however, the stands were empty.
“If you looked out at our north parking lot we had parents sitting in parked cars, watching the game,” West Valley coach Craig Whitney said. “So, we had fans there; they just weren’t in the stands.”
More than that, fans across the area were logging onto websites to watch the game through a variety of streaming services.
“We’ve installed some new cameras on the football field, and we have a couple students up in the press box doing the (play-by-play) and they did a great job,” Nilles said. “I think it worked really well.”
West Valley already set up a camera system in the gym and streams volleyball games. Soccer will be streamed as well as the Greater Spokane League has embraced streaming as a way of reaching out to its broad fan base.
The challenge comes in finding where a particular game is streaming online.
“Not everyone is doing the same thing,” Nilles explained. “Some are doing Pixellot (pixellot.tv). Some are doing Hudl (hudl.com). Pullman has a deal through Washington State to stream their games on YouTube.”
The live streams give friends and family in other parts of the country a chance to share in Friday night experience as schools return to the traditional schedule for the remainder of the season after taking an extra day of practice before the season opener in order to get more players eligible to play.
Whitney said he did not see any of the online stream, but he did hear some solid feedback.
His wife and daughter were on their way to Moscow, Idaho, during the game to catch son Connor Whitney play his season opener at the University of Idaho against Eastern Washington.
“They were streaming the game on their phones on the drive down,” the coach said. “They said it was a lot of fun, and the kids doing the game did a great job.”
The coach said he hurried to the Kibbie Dome after his game to watch his son and the Vandals get a season-opening victory.
Whitney said Saturday was an emotion-charged day as his players got the chance to get back on an athletic field after more than a year away due to the pandemic.
The rules set down by the state of Washington have been strictly adhered to.
“We went over all those rules at the very beginning,” Whitney said. “We explained that this was what they were going to have to do if they wanted to play. If they couldn’t follow these rules, then they couldn’t be part of what we’re doing.”
As it worked out, most of the coaching staff’s attention was focused on making sure everyone adhered to those rules.
“I would say that the vast majority of what we were doing (Saturday) was making sure we were following protocols,” Whitney said. “I’m hoping that, now that we have a game under our belts, we can kind of get back to focusing on football a little more.”
The coach said he missed the pregame flyover and caught it later when his wife showed him a video of the appearance on Facebook.
“I said ‘Where was this?’ ” he said. “She said, ‘It’s your game!’
“You know what? Last week was two years since (former Eagle) Collin Sather passed away. I just kept thinking that he found a great way to support his friends.”
Steve Christilaw can be reached at email@example.com
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